You can't really avoid Amazon these days, especially in the US and UK where it has become a huge part of online shopping. It launched its free shipping scheme, Prime, in the US in 2005 and throughout Europe in 2007.
Since then Amazon has been busy adding many features to Prime, and on the way has created it an almost must-have service.
It offers, most famously, unlimited free next-day delivery in the UK and two day delivery in the US, and also provides a whole selection of other bonuses like video and music streaming. For everything Prime offers you have to pay just $10.99 per month in the US or an annual fee of £79 per year in the UK.
You can always snag a one month free trial too. If you've had Prime or a Prime trial in the last year you might miss out, but Amazon tends to reset this so if you've been away long enough you can get back in with a free month.
July sees Amazon Prime day, a day of deals available exclusively to Amazon Prime members. It's good for us because we get good deals, and it's good for Amazon who is able to drive Prime sign-ups.
Prime is a clever idea, and one that's not really replicated by anyone else. Sure, Netflix has a video streaming service, but it's more expensive than Prime and doesn't have the ability to make things arrive at your house in less than 24 hours. Prime isn't a pure video service, but it offers one that's very good.
So what exactly do you get for your money?
There is the famous next-day delivery in the UK and two-day delivery in the US, while same day delivery is available in certain areas and rolling out further in 2017. Prime delivery is usually only available on 'Fulfilled by Amazon' purchases.
Free Kindle books
If you're a Kindle owner, then a Amazon Prime membership will get you access to a free ebook every month from the Kindle First service and another free book from the Amazon Kindle Lending Library.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
You'll also get access to the Amazon Prime Instant Video streaming service with hundreds of movies and TV shows, including Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond's "Grand Tour".
And of course there's also Prime Music which offers free music streaming of millions of tracks, plus Prime Photos for backing up your photographs from a phone or computer.
No matter what the service offers, and the faults that it has - which we'll explore - the key thing to remember here is that Amazon Video alone is worth the Prime subscription. It's cheaper than Netflix per year, and everything else that Prime offers can be considered as an added bonus. And there's a LOT of extras.
Amazon Prime Video
We've given Amazon Prime Instant Video a full test over here, but we'll cover most of the important points again in this review. This streaming service has had more names than Cordozar Calvin Broadus, Jr. over the years, and it forms an important part of what Amazon Prime offers.
It is, essentially, a streaming service like Netflix but it's also included in your yearly (or monthly) Prime subscription. It's really very impressive value.
The service is available through a series of apps across all types of smart devices. If you've got a TV, Blu-ray player or other media player from the last couple of years chances are it'll have the Amazon Prime Video app. There are also bespoke apps for Android and iOS. The only real omission is desktop - to use Prime Video on a computer you need to go via the main Amazon website which isn't a great user experience really. There is no Windows 10 app and no modern UI like you get with Netflix.
Downloading shows to your phone or tablet
However, Amazon does allow you to download shows to your devices, a feature which Netflix only recently matched.
This means that you can watch Mr. Robot on the plane, or off the grid, without anyone knowing. One big limitation of this though is that you can only have 25 items downloaded at once. That's an account limit too, not a device restriction. So if you have two tablets, you'll only be able to sync 25 items across both. I hit this limit, and I'm not entirely sure what else I had downloaded.
On downloads we'd urge you to select "best" quality for downloads. On an iPad Pro the medium setting didn't have anywhere near enough detail for our tastes.
Picture and sound quality
Amazon also offers 4K and HDR video, and and the selection of TV shows and movies is good, and growing. Amazon does a lot of deals with international broadcasters to bring their shows to Prime while also investing plenty in its own content. Picture and sound quality is, overall, excellent.
The best Amazon player is, weirdly, the Amazon Fire TV. If Amazon is going to be a big part of your video at home, get a Fire TV. It does Netflix brilliantly too as well as broadcast TV catchup apps.
Sorting the 'included with Prime' from the 'not included with Prime'
As a service Prime Video is excellent, the shows and films are varied but watch out for the slightly frustrating upsell.
That's to say, not every show you might see listed on Amazon Video is included in the subscription. Some must be paid for separately. That's somewhat understandable, and it's good that there's more on offer, but even so it lacks the clarity of Netflix, and many have mentioned it as a frustration.
Prime Music is a nice little bonus to go along with your Prime subscription. It doesn't cost extra, but includes a million tracks and curated playlists. It's not a rival for Spotify, but some people will likely find it good enough and just buy any albums they want to listen to that aren't included.
The nice thing about the Music service is that it also allows you to upload your own music as well as keeping a backup of any music you purchase from Amazon. If you buy a CD direct from Amazon, in most cases those tracks will get added to your online streaming package too. This makes this a nicely rounded service, and a real boost given it's free, or "included" if you prefer.
Amazon offers a desktop app too, which actually works quite well. It can be used to listen to the streaming library, your own uploaded music as well as past purchases. You can also use it to download your music.
Overall we wouldn't cancel a Spotify subscription for Prime Music, but again it's a wonderful bonus that would really suit someone who doesn't want a full-blown music service. And, to point out the obvious you're getting the whole of Prime for much less than a year's Spotify subscription.
Amazon Prime's Kindle Lending Library
A short point on the Kindle Lending Library, as it doesn't offer a huge amount, but is still a nice bonus. As part of your Amazon Prime membership, you can borrow one book from the Kindle store per calendar month.
There are 600,000 titles that are involved in the Library deal, and the Harry Potter books are included. Interestingly some books - Harry Potter included - have compilations, which count as one book. To borrow through the library, just search for something you want. If it's included, there will be a Prime logo on your Kindle or Fire tablet next to the title.
Again, the Kindle Library is one of those features that just sweetens the whole Prime deal. It's not enough to get you to part with your money on its own, but when considered in the wider offer it becomes part of an irresistible package.
There is another service called "Kindle Unlimited" which and and allows you to borrow pretty much any Kindle book. There is a library of 1 million books, and thousands of audiobooks on offer for this fee.
Amazon Prime Kindle First
This is a simple one, but it's also a bit weird. It's the sort of thing you'd never expect, nor ask for, but its existence is rather delightful. It's a free (or sometimes low-cost) offering that gives you early access to one of six pre-release books per month.
The books are chosen by editors, and not yet available to the general public. You select the one you want and off you go. Even non-subscribers can do this, but you have to sign-up to a newsletter, and anyone leaving the newsletter will no longer get the cheap/free books.
Amazon Prime Photos
Another simple idea, with Amazon Photos you download an app from your phone's app store and you can then upload and save unlimited photos on Amazon's cloud service. This works like Google Photos or Apple's iCloud - files are automatically uploaded so you know your shots are always backed up, and you get unlimited storage too.
Again, this is a service that you could pay a lot of money for, but Amazon just uses it to sweeten the deal. You can store photos directly from a phone, and there are also PC and Mac apps for your computer.
Like all the services of this type you should use it if you can, as it will keep your images backed up. The only slight warning you should bear in mind is that if you cancel your Prime, then you'll drop back to the standard storage allowance. You do get 90 days to re-download any images you uploaded though.
Amazon Prime delivery
When it launched it was really the next day (UK) / two-day (US) delivery that was "Prime". As time has gone on the service has evolved and added in new features, but it was the fast, free delivery that kicked it all off.
At the most basic level it allows you to place an order on a Monday and, as long as you don't miss the cut off time, get it Tuesday/Wednesday. In some regions you can also opt for an evening delivery if you order early enough. Be warned though, the stock available for a same-day evening delivery is not as comprehensive as that for next day. Amazon will tell you what options you have for a delivery though.
A lot of the value of Prime comes from the fact that shipping costs money from many of Amazon's competitors. And Amazon also usually has the lowest prices for popular items. So you tend to pay less total with Amazon provided you do a fair amount of online shopping.
Amazon Prime Early Access
Another aspect of Prime's shopping is access to what's called "Early Access". This gives Prime customers a 30-minute head-start on the day's lightning deals. These are price-reduced products that are available in limited numbers for a limited time. On very popular items it's handy to be able to see them before the general public, as you can reserve one and jump the queue.
In reality Lightning Deals and Early Access are of limited appeal because you have to simply be in the mood to spend money on something, but have no idea what you might actually want or need. It can be handy for Christmas and Birthday presents, where the deals act as inspiration.
Here's another one of Amazon's gloriously weird offerings. Pantry costs extra - there's a $5.99 delivery charge in the US (£2.99 in the UK) but what it gives you is a box which you can fill with various items. It's nifty for things like bottled water, confectionary and other supplies.
There are sometimes free shipping deals too, which add to the attractiveness of this. That said, the whole business of Amazon's grocery and household goods is way too complicated. There are at least three different services that offer the same range of things, and all are billed differently. Amazon Fresh, for example, is an additional monthly subscription over your Prime membership.
This one might suit some people, but it's sort of hidden away. We only found it because we were testing Prime for this review.
Amazon Prime Now
I'm lucky enough to live in an area served by Prime Now, a service which offers you delivery of certain items within one hour. In traditional Amazon style there is some considerable confusion about the various services.
There is another service, called Amazon Fresh, which is designed entirely for, you guessed it, food.
Prime Now is also another one of the Amazon services that, for some reason, needs its own app. In the US there's a website to order from, but the UK doesn't offer this so you have to use your phone. This is fiddly and a reasonably poor user experience. We asked the Amazon UK team if it was changing this, it told us it had no current announcement to make.
Where Amazon Prime Now comes into its own - and the good thing about the app - is the incredibly precise order tracking. Amazon drops you a text when the package leaves the depot and from then on you can see the name of your delivery driver and his location. If you're out for some reason, this could be incredibly useful as it gives you time to get home for the delivery.
Now offers delivery slots that are either "within the next hour" or slots of two hours after that. I made my order at roughly 6pm, and was able to get a slot of 8pm to 10pm. You can also pick the next day if you want, but really this is about same day delivery for items you want quickly.
We ordered some fresh fruit and vegetables in our Amazon Prime Now order, specifically because even normal supermarkets mess this sort of thing up. They arrived in good condition, without bruises.
There is also some considerable promise here. You could wake up in the morning, discover you didn't have anything for lunch, and have a delivery within a few hours. That's an interesting addition to the home delivery market, and one that could be a nifty bonus for those in eligible areas.
There is some weirdness though. For example, Amazon asks if you'd like to tip the delivery driver. But it doesn't do this after the package has been placed in your hands, it does it when you're buying.
Also, it's not made clear if the driver knows if you tipped or not.
Prime is really an incredible service that offers all sorts of benefits. For a modest subscription fee you get all of the things mentioned above thrown in. It's cheap, useful and even if you just use next day, or evening delivery a handful of times it's arguably worth it.
Factor in the amazing Amazon Video, and you find yourself with a proposition that's nearly impossible to turn down. It costs less over a year than Netflix, and you get a lot more for your money. That's not to say you shouldn't subscribe to Netflix too, because that service is remarkable for the modest monthly cost as well.